#21 ‘Boundaries’ by Brian Dillon

Vera's Shed

 

I could not swear to the model: my aunt owned many cameras, including a point-and-shoot I recall her bringing out at family gatherings in the 1980s. I do however recognise the vantage from which this photograph – an ordinary  6”x4” print of indifferent quality – was taken. By the shadows among a zig-zag of borders I can judge that it’s mid-morning. The cold outline of a rosebush retreats from the corner of a squat building made of soft wood. The shed has lately replaced an older tar-black structure housing rusty tools, Fry’s cocoa tins full of nails and an ancient policeman’s bicycle whose tyres had rotted it to the spot. A cement path flutes upward slightly and stops where it once met the doorway of this old shed; the path is stained with moss or algae where rainwater has pooled for decades. There are new concrete flags in the lower lefthand corner, and in the shadows at top right a patch of corrugated metal, splashed here and there with blue paint, abuts a breeze-block wall. This otherwise dull portion of the image is pierced by a trapezium of sunlight – where from?

And more to the point: what am I supposed to be looking at? The snapshot is one of many taken by my father’s sister in and around her home in the last decade of her life. I have in my possession 61 of these pictures, but I left handfuls more behind when I helped clear the house after her death. Hardly any faces or figures appear, just a couple of startled women behind the pharmacy counter as she finished off a roll of film and handed it over, and elsewhere an arm reaching into shot that must belong to one of my two brothers, helping old Vera with her gardening. She has photographed the house and environs from numerous angles; here are the roses at midday, a bright red plastic bird feeder suspended from the centre of the clothes line, a whitewashed concrete urn in the middle of the lawn that I remember my grandparents had filled with hydrangeas.

Other, odder images: the fat privet hedges that border the garden, held up in places by long fragile-looking wooden props or patched with more corrugated iron. Flowers with all their heads cut off; views from inside the back door at night, where the camera’s flash has hit the jade-green doorframe but not the scene outside. Blurred or otherwise botched images of door handles, window sills, opaque expanses of net curtain. Photos where the flash has bounced off the sitting-room window and swallowed whatever, or whoever, she was trying to catch outside – erased her own reflection too.

She was looking at, or looking for, evidence. For at least 40 years and possibly more, my aunt maintained a feud with her next-door neighbours (both sides) that came to dominate her life, a quarrel from which she seemed to draw malign energy, and out of which, despite the best efforts of family and friends, she could not finally be extricated. She had inherited the problem – I almost wrote project – from my grandparents, who moved into the redbrick suburban Dublin house with their three children (then in teens and twenties) in the late 1940s. Who knows how it all began. My guess is that my grandfather, a bully and snob with an inflated sense of the respect he deserved as a police sergeant, took against some small infringement of a boundary: a woodpile carelessly edging into his garden, something of that sort. Things must have escalated when he retired and his natural officiousness was slowly circumscribed by illness and immobility. Certainly by the late 1970s, when I was old enough to notice, he spoke of little else on our Sunday-afternoon visits; they – here he would jerk a thumb in either direction – had usually committed a fresh misdeed, often involving their moving by a few inches some portion of his now considerable corrugated defences. My father and another sister had escaped, hopped the fence, married and emigrated respectively. But Vera, then single and middle-aged, was trapped inside her now widowed father’s monomaniacal rage. She seemed to have elected herself heir to all his spite and his paranoia, and even went to work on her own separate campaign against daily life, imagining constant slights and negligences on the part of Dublin bus drivers – I have those letters too.

In my earliest memories of her, she is fat, boisterous, vulgar, not always unhappy. She liked to say that she had been beautiful as a girl, and might have been a model. But tuberculosis had taken years out of her youth. And worse: it had taken a lung, so that all her adult life she listed to one side. Perhaps, in an old fashioned way, she had got it in her head that her general health was undermined (along with her “prospects”) by that early illness and its permanent legacy. She was an energetic hypochondriac, and in her fifties added the medical profession to her growing list of miscreants, alongside insufficiently solicitous priests, cocky shop assistants and local politicians who had failed to act in the matter of the neighbours.

Increasingly it seemed she mediated a world bristling with insult and disappointment through things, through gadgets. She had worked in cinemas for years – we got free tickets to Star Wars and Tron – and maybe there got a taste for technology. Vera was the first person I knew to own a cassette recorder, a video player, a colour television. Some time in the mid 1980s she bought a huge Hitachi ghetto blaster, but was bored with it months later, and passed it on to us. When she upgraded her TV, we got the cast-off, practically new. She never gifted us a camera; her collection simply grew, perhaps in hope she’d one day take a pleasing or even competent snapshot: the family photos I have that can only have been taken by Vera are all sadly askew or out of focus. I can see her now with her big white plastic Polaroid OneStep, standing in the sun by those hydrangeas, growing hot and furious that none of her efforts to fix the world came out looking the way she planned.

I last saw her about five years before she died. Ten years before that she’d dramatically disowned me, not long after my father died. “From now on I’ve only the two nephews, do you hear me?” On visits home to Ireland I resisted getting drawn into seeing her again; her age and frailty did not move me. I heard she had lately driven her sister (returned after 30 years in New Zealand) from the house for, among other misdemeanours, treading too heavily on the stair carpet. I heard she was now genuinely ill, but entirely resistant to the notion she might also have psychological problems. She was consumed as she entered her eighties by the idea that somebody was regularly invading her property and cutting her roses. One day my youngest brother watched her bustle into the garden and snip half a dozen blooms herself, then march back in the house with the evidence: “Look, look what the bastards have done!”

When I finally relented and went to see her I was quite prepared for the monologue, the blame, the fantasies, the sanctimonious memories of Daddy, whom she must have hated above all. What I had not predicted was the intensity of her vigilance, the energy and rigour she still put into her forensic argument with the outside world. She’d recently had CCTV installed at the front and rear of the house, she told me. And sure enough in the small stuffy and formal, mostly unused, sitting room was a pale metal monitor flickering away in black and white, connected to a camera that was propped on the window sill just a few feet away and trained on the small front garden with its ornamental hedges, its neat sprung metal gate. In her living room an identical apparatus, the screen dominating the dining table and the camera directed at rose bushes and shed. Neither camera was attached to a recorder. I swear I felt dizzy at the thought: she must watch this stuff live. Could it be true? That in place of her beloved soap operas and old movies with Victor Mature, she sat down now to squint, unseen behind her curtains, at these squarish grey screens, fearing and hoping to see movement from the hedge, a figure dart into view, the crime itself in process? Afternoon turned to evening as I sat listening to her decades-old complaints; on the table in front of me the screen dimmed slowly till a street light came on, and headlights streamed in the distance.

Though I have chosen the barest and least ‘emotional’ among the five-dozen of these photographs, the snapshot of the garden shed is well stocked with regret and nostalgia, lingering distaste for who she was and belated understanding of how she got to be that way. I would like to know when exactly her personality curdled and whether the process might have been reversed, whether she could have been spared my grandfather’s acid legacy.

But I can see something else among those pictures now, and maybe especially in this dull pattern of corners and edges. If I cannot exactly sympathise with her anxiety and aggression, I understand perfectly her methods and the state of mind necessary to such a protracted act of close looking. For half her time on earth, she never stopped paying attention, never ceased to examine for clues the shrinking world in which she lived. Hers was not much of a life, a half-life maybe; for sure, she ought to have been rescued from eking it out like this, in anxious trips to the pharmacy to collect her prints and examine the recent evidence. But all her obsessive and solitary looking, all her keen listening, all her poring over pictures and locking the world away so she could address it only in letters of complaint – it’s what I do almost every day as a writer, and when I can’t do it what I aspire to, what I miss. It’s the family curse, you might say, this peering at nothing till it gives something up, some objective correlative for our worst fear, and I am simply lucky to be able to stop now and then and turn back to the world, unafraid.

 

Brian Dillon’s books include Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg Press, 2014), I Am Sitting in a Room (Cabinet, 2012) and Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011). He writes regularly for the Guardian, frieze, Art Review and the London Review of Books. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art.